Year C, Easter 2

 

Acts 5: 12-16

Rev. 1: 9-13, 17-19

John 20: 19-31

19th April 1998, St Stephen's

 

Let me begin by congratulating you for the part you played in making this Holy Week and Eastertide so succesful that it's difficult to think of one to compare with it.

Lots of members of St Stephen's have said that they have found it like that too. Somehow this year everything and everyone just "came together", and as I predicted on Palm Sunday, the whole experience of Holy Week just "jelled" in a way it so often does not.

The sheer effort which people put into it was remarkable. It's all too easy for those of us who have cars and whose families no longer live at home to suppose that "getting to church" is as simple for everyone as it has become for us.

But simple it isn't. There are problems of transport, problems of shift work, the demands of children and elderly relatives, and this year in particular problems with the weather, all of which conspire to make it more difficult to be in church throughout Holy Week; yet somehow all these difficulties were overcome.

The most important thing now is to remember that we managed it this year and that we can therefore do the same or even better in 1999 and from now onwards.

Teachers tell us that it's just as important to persuade their pupils in the first place that they can do something as it is to teach them how to do it; but there's a stage in learning which comes even before the "You-Can-Do-It" one, whether "it" means learning to swim, ride a bicycle or drive a car.

That preliminary stage is when we realise not only that such things can be done, but that even old Aunt Ethel (aged seventy-three) and young Edward (aged three-and-a-bit) have learnt how to do it. The vital contribution which Old Ethel or Young Edward have to make to the learning process is the way in which they make us say to ourselves "Well, if he (or she) can do it then I'm certain that I can".

For Ethel and Edward are what is called "living witnesses". Their importance consists not so much in what they say as in what they can do; and the particular of people like them is that they are just so ordinary like the rest of us. If they'd been people of the kind who seem able to do anything they turn their mind to then we should say to ourselves "well they can do it because they're clever"; whereas what we say of them (because one of them is old and one is young) is "Well, if they can do it, I know I can"

But it's no use asking Edward or Ethel how they manage to do it, because the chances are they won't be able to tell you in any way that makes sense. They'll say something like "It's easy: all you do is this" and then proceed to do it themselves, which isn't what we really want at all. What we are after is someone to teach us how to do it, not someone to show us that they can do it themselves, encouraging though that may be.

There, of course, is where the teacher comes in. Though the teacher may not be the best person in the first place to get us interested in doing something (Ethel and Edward can do make better job of that); when it comes to the actual business of learning then it's important to have someone teaching who knows their subject really well and is able to share their knowledge with us in a way we can understand.

What is true about other sorts of learning, bicycles, driving or swimming is equally true of learning to be a good Christian witness. For "witnessing for Christ" is what being a Christian is really about.

What made the Apostles and Disciples such effective witnesses of our Lord's Resurrection were three things.

Firstly it was because they were "unlearned and ignorant men" rather than in spite of the fact, that their very boldness in the face of the head-on conflict with precisely those people they had most to fear - the Chief Priests and their colleagues made everyone aware that something quite remarkable had happened to them between Maundy Thursday (when they all ran away) and Easter Day (when they proclaimed that he was risen from the dead); if they'd been naturally brave or well-educated men then it wouldn't have made nearly the same impression.

Secondly they impressed people by the fact that they were living witnesses. They weren't just repeating hearsay evidence, the sort begins "Well, so-and-so tells me" or "I heard someone in the market place say that". It was the simple, firsthand statement "He is risen and we have seen and touched his risen body"

Thirdly people were impressed by the way they all "stuck together" even in the face of persecution. They stood by their story to the last like St John says in the second reading "I was imprisoned on this island for having preached God's word and witnessed for Jesus, despite imprisonment and even death. It wasn't just a case of "I believe" but of "we believe"; not "I am a witness" but "we are witnesses".

So these three things, unlearned men who were living witnesses who stood together changed these men into effective witnesses for the truth in the way that the false witnesses in Jesus' trial could never be.

And these three ingredients are exactly what has helped to make this such a memorable Holy Week and Easter.

First of all we came together during Lent to learn not only from our teacher Fr Kirk, but from one another. In this respect the role of the unlearned is as important as that of the teacher, because in the matter of learning to be a good witness for Jesus Christ, the learned and the wise have no advantage, as Jesus said, over babes and sucklings. Aunt Ethel and young Edward may learn how to do it more quickly and efficiently than someone who is more obviously intellectually gifted; and the fact that they can do it is, as we saw earlier on, the first stage to helping the rest of us see that we can do it too.

Secondly we have been living witnesses to Jesus Resurrection by meeting together in his name to share in his Body and Blood. We too have been raised with Christ, and like him we are "seeking those things that are above".

Thirdly, like the apostles, we have all stayed together like the parts of a living body.

To understand the importance of this, just think back to the accident which happened to me in church on Holy Saturday night. As a result of it I damaged my left wrist.

Now what was most remarkable about this was finding out that there were a whole lot of things which I had taken for granted that I could do which suddenly became impossible. Why? Because the fingers of my left hand simply wouldn't work together any longer. Simple things like unscrewing the lid of the sauce bottle, or getting into and out of the bath became really difficult. Although each finger was working fine on its own, they just wouldn't work together any longer.

Think about that in the weeks ahead. Each of us as a member of Christ on our own may be doing quite well, like my fingers. But unless we continue to work in association with each other then our witness for him will be ineffectual. The witness that the apostles gave was that of a body, working together as a whole, each joint and limb and organ making its particular contribution as we did during Lent and Holy Week, in such a way that we can say not only "I believe" but "we believe", not just "this is my faith" but "this is our faith, this is the faith of the Church".

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